A striking thing about the current moment is that if you switch back and forth between reading conservatives and liberals, you see mirror-image anxieties about authoritarianism and totalitarianism, which each side believes are developing across the partisan divide.
Last week I wrote in response to liberals who fear a postelection coup or a second-term slide toward autocracy, arguing (not for the first time) that Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are overwhelmed by his incapacities, his distinct lack of will-to-power, and the countervailing power of liberalism in American institutions.
But then the ensuing week brought a wave of conservative anxieties about creeping authoritarianism. The source of the right’s agita was Twitter and Facebook, which decided to completely block a New York Post story featuring a cache of alleged Hunter Biden emails (with a very strange chain-of-custody back story) on the suspicion that they were the fruit of hacking, and in Twitter’s case to suspend some media accounts that shared the Post story even in critique.
“This is what totalitarianism looks like in our century,” the Post’s Op-Ed editor, Sohrab Ahmari, wrote in response: “Not men in darkened cells driving screws under the fingernails of dissidents, but Silicon Valley dweebs removing from vast swaths of the internet a damaging exposé on their preferred presidential candidate.”
Ahmari’s diagnosis is common among my friends on the right. In his new book “Live Not By Lies,” for instance, Rod Dreher warns against the rise of a “soft totalitarianism,” distinguished not by formal police-state tactics but by pressure from the heights of big media, big tech and the education system, which are forging “powerful mechanisms for controlling thought and discourse.”
Dreher is a religious conservative, but many right-of-center writers who are more culturally liberal (at least under pre-2016 definitions of the term) share a version of his fears. Indeed, what we call the American “right” increasingly just consists of anyone, whether traditionalist or secularist or somewhere in between, who feels alarmed by growing ideological conformity within the media and educational and corporate establishments.
Let me try to elaborate on what this right is seeing. The initial promise of the internet era was radical decentralization, but instead over the last 20 years, America’s major cultural institutions have become consolidated, with more influence in the hands of fewer institutions. The decline of newsprint has made a few national newspapers ever more influential, the most-trafficked portions of the internet have fallen under the effective control of a small group of giant tech companies, and the patterns of meritocracy have ensured that the people staffing these institutions are drawn from the same self-reproducing professional class. (A similar trend may be playing out with vertical integration in the entertainment business, while in academia, a declining student population promises to close smaller colleges and solidify the power of the biggest, most prestigious schools.)
Over the same period, in reaction to social atomization, economic disappointment and conspicuous elite failure, the younger members of the liberal upper class have become radicalized, embracing a new progressive orthodoxy that is hard to distill but easy to recognize and that really is deployed to threaten careers when the unconvinced step out of line.
And then finally, Trump’s mendacious presidency and the spread of online conspiracy theories has encouraged liberals in a belief that the only way to safeguard democracy is for this consolidated establishment to become more aggressive in its attempts at cultural control — which is how you get the strange phenomenon of some journalists fretting about the perils of the First Amendment and demanding that the big social-media enterprises exert a kind of prior restraint over the American conversation.
The right can see all this happening, and so just as liberals see political authoritarianism in a Republican Party clinging to power via the Senate’s rural bias, conservatives increasingly see that same GOP as the only bulwark against the cultural authoritarianism inherent in tech and media consolidation. As long as the Republicans retain some power in Washington, Twitter can be forced to walk back its shutdown of the Post (as it did, days after) and Facebook will remain a safe space to share Ben Shapiro posts … but once you hand full political power to liberalism as well, the right fears that what starts with bans on QAnon and Alex Jones will end with social-media censorship of everything from pro-life content to critiques of critical race theory to coverage of the not-so-peaceful style in left-wing protest.
My own view is that this conservative anxiety risks three mistakes. The first is an exaggeration of the consequences of any given election: Losing the presidency for four years and the Senate for two will not immediately make Republicans irrelevant to the calculations of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, and a movement that is poised to make a very Catholic mother of seven the sixth conservative on the Supreme Court retains considerably more resources than, say, dissident movements under Communism.
The second is a somewhat exaggerated sense of the possibilities for permanent cultural control available to a tech-enabled progressivism. Californian writer James Poulos, who coined the term “the pink police state” to describe the phenomenon that Dreher and others call soft totalitarianism, also emphasized the way that dissent and transgression under this system still “recedes from the reach of officialdom,” often outstripping and eluding the would-be censors. The new progressivism is a powerful orthodoxy in certain ways, but brittle and beset by internal contradictions in others, and the full expanse of American discourse is unlikely to ever fall permanently under its control.
Finally, writers anxious about soft totalitarianism on the left tend (not always, but too often) to underestimate how much of a gift the presidency of Donald Trump has been to exactly the tendencies they fear. Trump’s own authoritarian impulses and conspiratorial style are so naked, so alienating and frightening, that many people who might otherwise unite with conservatives against the new progressive establishment end up as its reluctant fellow travelers instead.
But having offered these doubts about the diagnosis, let me stress that the mix of elite consolidation and radicalization that conservatives fear is entirely real — and its reality is one reason among many to recognize that no, even in a second term a hapless bully like Trump will not become a dictator and the Republican Party will not establish permanent one-party rule.
Power lies in many places in America, but it lies deeply, maybe ineradicably for the time being, in culture-shaping and opinion-forming institutions that conservatives have little hope of bringing under their control.
Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.